Foreign Policy Blogs

Bear-Baiting Debating

Call me Miss Congeniality, but my brittle European sensibilities were flummoxed by the sheer boorishness of the anti-Russia vitriol in last night's McCain-Obama match.


Setting aside the painful hypocrisy inherent, in the words of one BBC commenter, in “the irony of two men castigating Russia for unnacceptable petrodollar muscleflexing and interfering in other nations affairs while debating the best tactic for deploying US troops abroad…” the whole thing was very unbecoming.

I understand that this was a foreign policy debate and US-Russian relations have been rocked by the Georgian war; indeed, I was expecting plenty of oblique references to the event, and a healthy dose of sardonic swipes at the resurgent Eastern European power.

Perhaps something along the lines of Putin's speech in 2006, the last Russian-American low point, in which he compared America to a wolf.

However, that speech, full of “veiled references” and “apparent jibes”, and billed by most Western newspapers as just about the most aggressive, jingoist and nationalistic in human history, now feels SOOOO totally tame!

It seems that comic-book villification has become an essential precondition for American campaigning.


In a sense, ritualistic bluster, the American equivalent of Soviet-speak, is its own political lexicon: vocabulary, rather than content. Using respectful language regarding rival powers is no longer allowed; thus, just as any argument in official Soviet circles had to be advanced in Marxist-Leninist terms, so too now must any US foreign policy argument – no matter how conciliatory and benign – be couched in angry jingoism.

Once upon a time, Kremlinologists had to parse through pages and pages of nearly identical speeches extolling the virtues of Lenin and Marx before they could read between the lines and unearth the sometimes very different meanings that lay beneath.

Who knew that these tactics would have to be applied in America c. 2008?

Depressing, yes; but also necessary, because on the face of it, McCain's and Obama's positions on Russia seemed identical: analysts concluded that “both criticized Russia's invasion of Georgia and said Georgia and Ukraine should be free to join NATO”, and the two agreed on Iran, Russia and the U.S. financial crisis.

After all, it was Obama who was the sole candidate to refer to Russia as a ‘rogue state’.

However, these lexically similar declarations betray significantly divergent policy aims.

Compare and contrast some of the assertions below:

Obama: “Russia is a threat to the peace and stability of the region. Their actions in Georgia were unacceptable”.

McCain: “Russia committed serious aggression against Georgia. And Russia has now become a nation fueled by petro-dollars that is basically a KGB apparatchik-run government. I looked into Mr. Putin's eyes, and I saw three letters, a “K,” a “G,” and a “B.” And their aggression in Georgia is not acceptable behavior”.

Sound fairly similar, non?

However, the devil is in the follow-ups. Obama later makes a very clear distinction between US support for Eastern Europe, “the Estonians, the Lithuanians, the Latvians, the Poles, the Czechs”, who “are members of NATO”, and Ukraine and Georgia, who are not.

This is something that McCain emphatically does not.

McCain: “I think the Russians ought to understand that we will support — we, the United States — will support the inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine in the natural process, inclusion into NATO”.

Here's Obama's take:

Obama: “To countries like Georgia and the Ukraine, I think we have to insist that they are free to join NATO if they meet the requirements, and they should have a membership action plan immediately to start bringing them in”.

While both McCain and Obama support Nato membership for Georgia and Ukraine, Obama includes the key proviso of “if they meet the requirements”; those requirements could include having full territorial control, for example,which Georgia would not currently be able to meet.

And how did they fare meting out threats of a new cold war?

I don't believe we’re going to go back to the Cold War. I am sure that that will not happen. But I do believe that we need to bolster our friends and allies.

Translation: “We don't want a cold war; just a hardened division of Europe into two sides – us and the Russkie bastards”.


Now, we also can't return to a Cold War posture with respect to Russia. It's important that we recognize there are going to be some areas of common interest.

Translation: “Despite all my obligatory bullish rhetoric earlier on, I am not interested in a cold war, but rather in an aggressive engagement based on common ground and national interest, including Iran, energy and nuclear non-proliferation”.

I have written much about how McCain has been comprehensively wrong on Russia from the start; no-where more so than in his hot headed and ignorant knee-jerk reaction to the Georgia conflict that singularly failed to address Georgian complicity in the outbreak of the violence.

Yet, he somehow managed to cast Obama's reasonable and sane call for “restraint from both sides” as “naive”.

The scariest part of it all is that the pundits overwhelmingly applauded McCain's jingoistic Russia-bashing, and it didn't all come from the right, either!

While the neoconservative Heritage Foundation's Nile Gardiner could be expected to wax lyrical about McCain's  “swagger and aggression”, I was very surprised to see the sentiments echoed by the latte-liberal Guardian's Michael Tomasky: “McCain probably won the Russia conversation”.

In the end, the BBC sums it up nicely:

“Mr McCain was able to describe meeting Vladimir Putin, “looking into his eyes and seeing three letters, K, G and B” – a reference to the old Soviet intelligence agency for which Mr Putin once worked.

Does it sound corny to foreign ears, with a slight B-movie flavour to it? It probably does”.

So there you have it: superpower presidential elections as B-Movie casting calls.

Be afraid, be very afraid…

–by Vadim Nikitin



Vadim Nikitin

Vadim Nikitin was born in Murmansk, Russia and grew up there and in Britain. He graduated from Harvard University with a thesis on American democracy promotion in Russia. Vadim's articles about Russia have appeared in The Nation, Dissent Magazine, and The Moscow Times. He is currently researching a comparative study of post-Soviet and post-Apartheid nostalgia.
Areas of Focus:
USSR; US-Russia Relations; Culture and Society; Media; Civil Society; Politics; Espionage; Oligarchs